Our journey to better health

"Can you get me some frogs legs for my husband, whilst I'm in the clinic?" was the all important question, as three patients from Northamptonshire were transported across the Channel for private medical treatment last week.

Setting of ...

The Chronicle & Echo travelled with the "two hips and one knee" group, plus their companions, as they were taken direct from their homes to the Clinique Sainte Isabelle in Abbeville, northern France.

During its seven years of operation, the NHS-approved company, People Logistics, based in Sywell, has helped to treat around 2,000 people, by taking them to a French hospital to be operated on by flamboyant senior orthopaedic consultant Philippe Renaux.

The family company – involving father, step-mother, son and daughter, plus a handful of friends – provides a unique, friendly service to disheartened tax payers and can book people in for operations in just two weeks.

Worried about dirty hospitals, waiting lists and poor service in the UK, patients nationwide have been contacting the firm, which runs the only door-to-door service in the country.

With the UK ranked 17th in Europe for its healthcare, compared with France at number three, it is an obvious choice for the patients who can afford it.

And this month a surge of Northamptonshire patients have been through the wheels of People Logistics.

Joining the patients on their journey to France, I was collected at home at 7.45am by chirpy driver Bob Tansley and his immaculate, spacious people carrier, filled with bottles of water.

I joined two patients and their companions and immediately there was a holiday atmosphere, helped by Mr Tansley's jokes, which put everyone at ease.

As we picked up the third and final patient in Duston, she hopped aboard and said: "It's like an adventure really."

Sitting in the back of the minibus as we travelled down to Folkestone I chatted with Jane Smith*, from Moulton, who was travelling with her husband.

She signed up for a hip replacement after being deterred by the "money-grabbing" attitude of private consultants in the UK.

"I wasn't going to have the operation, but then I read about People Logistics in the Chronicle & Echo. The surgery is not as invasive as it is here."

This is something that is echoed by the other patients I meet throughout the day.

The hip and knee procedures carried out at the clinic are minimally invasive surgery, the norm in France, which means a small, 3ins incision, rather than the UK 10ins procedure.

Minimally Invasive Surgery has been the norm for three to four years in France. This means a small incision, possibly as little as 3ins, and the insertion of smaller, extremely high quality prostheses.

Mrs Smith is also concerned about the cleanliness of hospitals in England, a topical issue after it was reported just days ago that 90 deaths at Maidstone Hospital were likely to have been caused by C-diff.

"I think a lot of people have just lost confidence in the NHS," said Mrs Smith.

"They give all the money to themselves," her husband chipped in, referring to the recent pay increase in consultant salaries, which has cost the NHS millions.

"You can't create a great doctor with 1 million, it is about dedication and hard work."

Hard work is something People Logistics knows a lot about, with drivers transporting patients door-to-door, three times a week. It currently transports around a dozen people a week and demand is rising.

The trip to the clinic is a 14-hour round journey for the drivers. Sometimes the drivers will go the whole distance and other days they drive to the half-way point with outgoing patients and pick up people returning home from France.

They will collect patients from anywhere in England and Wales, with some patients coming from Newcastle and others from Dartmouth.

But, despite a background in management and a previous career in Florida, Mr Tansley could not be happier transporting patients along the M1 and M25 each day.

"It is the most fulfilling and enjoyable job I have ever had," he said. "When you get people coming out of the hospital and they no longer have the pain, knowing you have been part of the process is very rewarding."

"It is an education speaking to people who have lived such varied lives. People have flown in from Houston in Texas and from Spain, and Namibia.

"They are all English and they combine it with a longer stay, visiting friends and family."

The handover ...

A little after 10.30am, we arrived at Maidstone services and stopped for a coffee, paid for by the company.

Here we exchanged drivers and meet Andy Wright, the "French connection", who lives just outside Abbeville with his wife and four children.

The family moved from Mears Ashby to France to provide a better service for patients.

Along with doing pick-ups at Maidstone, Mr Wright visits patients in the hospital several times a week, brings them English newspapers and pops over to the supermarket to get them French delicacies.

"I tend to visit you if you want me to, or not," he quipped to the patients.

Before we got into another sparkling people carrier (this time with left-hand drive) with Mr Wright, I had a quick chat with Bob Douglas, from Bexleyheath in south-east London, who is being picked up by Mr Tansley.

The 74-year-old retired nurse has just returned from the French clinic following his third consecutive visit.

He has paid to have both his knees replaced and one of his hips, by dipping into his savings, which will "leave my kids short."

"The NHS won't operate on me because I weigh more than 16 stone. But I am 74, I am not going to lose four stone. The anaesthetist in France said it was the biggest load of rubbish he had ever heard.

It is just a way of rationing. When I worked in the health service, I saw it happening, but they should be honest about it."

Back on the minibus, Mr Wright informs the patients exactly what will happen when they arrive at the clinic, when they will have free time and how their recovery will be staggered.

Surgery is undertaken two days after their arrival and the consultant visits them in their private room, with ensuite bathroom, almost every day.

At the clinic, all patients stay for two weeks so they can receive thorough aftercare and physiotherapy before returning home.

If they have any complications, they will be returned to the clinic to see the consultant at no additional cost.

The crossing ...

At the Channel Tunnel entrance, Mr Wright had lots of insightful comments: "You get to know the system.

It is lunchtime, so the French won't be that interested, especially when there is pile of British passports."

And he was right, the French customs official waved the vehicle on without looking at a single passport.

Once on the train, Mr Wright hands out a selection of sandwiches, water and snacks.

The break from the noise of the motorway gave me an opportunity to talk to Margaret Dawes*, from Duston, who was on her way over for a knee operation.

She was terrified of having an operation at home because of the fear of acquiring an infection.

It is understandable, after she told me her son recently caught one while recovering from an accident in Kettering General Hospital.

"I have heard the same thing two or three times.

My husband and I were getting paranoid about me having the operation on the NHS. I just want my life back. I used to go swimming four times a week and now I get tired walking up the stairs.

"We looked at Three Shires Hospital, but it was a lot more expensive."

The cost of a hip operation with People Logistics is 6,850 and a knee replacement is 6,975.

It is able to hugely undercut private hospitals in the UK, which usually charge more than 10,000, because costs in France are much lower.

Companions can also travel with patients and pay a flat fee of 450. This will enable them to stay in the hospital in a twin room with the patient and have all their meals provided.

Sally Meadows* took her mother-in-law to the clinic, enabling her husband to stay at home and look after their animals.

As an NHS nurse in the East Midlands, she was adamant not to have her hip operation on the NHS.

"I didn't like the fact that the infection rates are very high and I didn't want to go into hospital and come out with something else.

It was too much of a risk.

"But it does make you feel a bit bitter. You spend all that money paying into the NHS for years and, when you need it, it is not there for you.

"It is also the aftercare. People are not ready to go home after a short stay. They might be ready psychologically, but their bodies are not ready.

"Last year, I was on a rock climbing holiday and now I can't even walk the dog. You never expect to be in this situation. It is hard for your family as well."

The hospital ...

Finally, at 3.30pm local time, we arrived at the clinic, which had a surprisingly grotty facade but leafy, attractive reception area.

Inside it was very much like any hospital. It was not all shiny and new and had the same dark, narrow hospital corridors and worn walls.

The public toilet on the ward did not even have a sink to wash your hands and yet the clinic has no record of MRSA or any other superbugs.

The difference is individual rooms and careful attention to hygiene by nursing and cleaning staff.

On arrival, the patients were dispersed into their separate rooms and Mr Wright showed them all how to use the telephone and television (the only additional but optional cost).

Meanwhile, I met the British patients who had already been there for a week, recovering.

They were all sitting in one patient's room, drinking tea and coffee and nattering away, as if they were at a holiday camp.

Glen Bills, of Kings-thorpe in Northampton, was bright as a button and managing to walk around with one crutch following his hip operation.

He also had a large bottle of gin and tonic in his room, to help while away the evening hours.

The 73-year-old retired office machine repairer said: "The moment we got here, we had hardly put our bags down and they came to see us straight away to take our bloods.

"I used to have backache, but now that has gone and the ache in my knee is also gone."

But he, too, is angry at the NHS: "I think they should pay for some of it. If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be here. I didn't know when I would get my operation on the NHS."

However, he remains in a jovial mood, enjoying the community feel on the mainly British ward.

"I asked the doctor if I could take my hip bone back for my dog, but he said it I wouldn't get it through customs."

His only complaint is the food, something repeated by many of the other patients.

"It is not terrific. But I didn't come here for the food."

And if he does fancy some finer food, someone from People Logistics is always on hand to pop to the supermarket next door for a nice bit of French brie.

& For more information on People Logistics, call 0800 587 9501.

To watch an interview with Dr Renaux, visit our website at www.northamptonchron.co.uk

*Some names have been changed at the request of the patients.